The owl service | Alan Garner

Written for older children 50+ years ago, I don’t remember ever reading this although as a voracious young reader I must have. But I’ve read it now. And it’s wonderful.

I’ve just learned of the distinction between ‘low fantasy’ and ‘high fantasy’; low fantasy (silly name) is set in the everyday world, high fantasy in an imagined world. If I was forced to choose a side I’d go with low fantasy. I love The dark is rising and Northern lights (on the cusp, I know), but have never been able to get into the likes of Lord of the rings et al.

And The owl service is definitely low fantasy. It’s set in a bleak Welsh landscape, where ancient supernatural forces and legends are very much at home, but there’s also a fair bit of gritty realism and social comment. It starts on familiar territory: city child recovering from illness in the country, odd locals, old house, strange noises in the attic etc. But then goes deeper and darker in every way. The relationship between the three central characters is also far more fraught than the usual kids adventure story. Class, privilege, national identity, jealousy and family tensions put the protagonists at odds with each other, so there’s no chums-solve-a-mystery-together jollity – thankfully.

The hard sparse prose matches the setting perfectly. There’s little exposition and a lot of dialogue, so the reader really has to pay attention, making it quite a challenging read for an adult (well this adult anyway) let alone a child. It deserves its folk-horror-classic status: it’s an evocative, complex, dark and unsettling tale. (Made more so by a memorable moment while engrossed in this, when I heard an actual owl whoo-whooing at midnight, which thoroughly spooked me…)